Armor

3,482
07.03.2019

"It's about Lya's request for information on that recitation Felix gave on that first day. You gave it to her. Remember?"

I nodded. He pointed to a row of abbreviations. "All this means is the extent of the scan. This machine didn't have any reference. So it asked the Fleet Beam. Nothing there, either. Had to go all the way to Earth, to the Biblioterre' in Geneva."

"Holly," I sighed, not bothering to hide my lack of interest, "where did it come from."

He looked at me. "Oh. Uh, Golden."

"Golden?" I cried, surprised.

"Yes. It's part of the coronation ceremony for Guardian. But not just any Guardian-you know they have about twenty- but for the First Guardian. The "Guardian of Gold," it says here."

"The Boss, you mean."

Holly laughed. "Boss is a way of describing the most powerful monarch of the richest and most influential planet in manned space. The First Guardian is Golden." He smiled, shook his head at me. "Boss indeed!"

I shrugged. "Anything else?"

"Yes, as a matter of fact. It's a secret."

"But it was in the computer."

Holly frowned. "In a way, it was. You see, we asked what it meant. If we had asked what it was, we'd have gotten nothing."

I didn't get it. "Then why have it in there at all?"

"History. The Biblioterre' is where everything is kept from all the planets that they want to last forever." He grinned wryly. "Once this colonizing'phase' has exhausted itself."

I was wondering how much I liked this new sarcastic Holly when Lya breezed briskly into the room, her arms full of coils. She sat down across the table from us and began inserting various coils into various slots. She made the panel appear at that end and, with it, several screens rise into position. She looked very determined today. Not as if she had solved anything yet. But as if she was damn well going to before anybody took another step.

I lit a cigarette and waited for her to finish her preparations. Holly went to some trouble to appear calmly attentive, but he was just as impatient as I was.

At last, she was done. She came around to our side, transferred control to the other panel before her, and began to lecture.

Holly winced a little when he heard that tone in her voice. He glanced at me, his face expressionless but his meaning clear: Uh, oh, the cold dispassionate scientist is back. I kept my face equally blank, but I was wincing, too. Not so much at his coldness, but at the price of it. In fact, the price of the whole scene was getting awfully high.

No more Young Genius worshipping the Great Jack Crow, which was no loss. But no more sweet Holly melding warmly with his exquisite Lya either. And that was going to be missed.

I glanced at the suit, back to the two of them, already debating.

"Notice first these three frequencies representing stress," said Lya, pointing to the largest screen. "The figure for stress is found by correlating…"

"Yes, yes, I see it," Holly didn't quite snap. "It's a three. Low."

"Particularly since this was recorded during battle."

Holly blinked. "huh? It can't be."

She shrugged, turned the panel toward him to have him see for himself. He did. He checked her figures in her specialty. If she was angry, she didn't show it. Holly sat back when he was done, "Your equipment must be faulty." Lya's eyebrows lifted. Her equipment indeed. But all she did was key another screen and say; "Not necessarily. This is the Alpha series for the same period."

Holly's eyes widened. "Whew! A nine! I knew he was scared."

"So we have an apparent paradox."

And an argument. Or what would pass for one during this zombietime. In general, they were trying to figure out about Felix's split personality. Why was he splitting? How was he splitting? How come it worked? Specifically, how come his mind was terrified but his body was not? Sort of.

"Felix's fear is as strong as anyone's," said Lya. "We know that."

"Or stronger," said Holly.

"Or stronger," she agreed. "But it would seem to be limited to certain parts of his brain."

"How?"

"Perhaps it's his overall sense of defeatism and despair."

"Then how does that correlate with his incredible battle energy?" Holly wondered aloud. "It couldn't be the instinctive will to survive."

"Not in the usual sense," she agreed. "For then the despair would go. The brain would discard it in order to save the psyche."

Holly sighed. "Perhaps it is equipment failure. Since there is no apparent motivational pattern."

"But there is a pattern. The readings are consistent."

"Consistent but illogical. Psybernetically false. Because there must be overall motivational factors. There must be something to give it all a push."

Lya mused: "A terrified man, whose brain manages to compartmentalize the terror so that he is able to function smoothly. Yet the whole process is overlaid with total fatalism, a clearly discernible condition that, by electrical necessity, should negate any positive motivation… Hollis, no one exists like this…"

I laughed. "He did. And damn well."

Lya was not amused. "We know that. Jack. We just don't know how."

"You keep saying that. I don't see what the problem is."

Holly tried a patient smile. "The trouble is. Jack, that there are a couple of blatant contradictions here. You see, in a high-stress situation like this one, requiring physical response to physical peril, usually one of two things happens: The emotional reaction, the fear, becomes predominant, thereby paralyzing the body. Or, conversely, the body takes control, forgetting, for the time being, the fear."

"You mean the guy either panics and freezes, or becomes a hero first and panics later."

"Essentially, yes."

"But Felix didn't do either one," I pointed out.

"Precisely," said Holly nodding. "But he should have."

"Why?"

Lya blinked. "Because he's a human being."

"But everybody isn't. like everybody else."

"True, Jack," agreed Holly slowly. "And clearly Felix is an exceptional man. But there are limits even here. Particularly when you consider the rather obvious fact of his fatalism. A man as, well, as resigned as he is to death just shouldn't be able to keep going…"

"He doesn't believe. Jack," interrupted Lya. "And without belief there is no positive motivational factor."

I sat up in my chair. "You keep saying that, too.'Positive motivations.'"

Holly lifted an eyebrow. "Yes… ?"

I shrugged. "But there's nothing positive about Felix."

Holly stared at me quizzically for a few moments. Then his face brightened and his eyes lit up. "Of course'." he shouted. "It's not positive at all. It's negative!"

Lya looked skeptical. "A negative motivation?"

"Sure," he said happily, turning to her. "It all fits. But you've got to take the factors in order of priority. First comes the fear. The defeatism comes next-Felix has no faith that he will live. But it's that very lack of hope which allows him to avoid, temporarily, the burden of the fear. For without suspense, the major effects of fear are sidetracked."

"And so, too," added Lya," are most motivational factors."

"Only the positive ones."

She looked at him oddly. "You mean… he wants to die?"

"Of course not," retorted Holly. "He merely expects to."

"Then the negative push?"

I jumped in. "He refuses to."

She looked at me. "I beg your pardon?"

Holly laughed. "Don't you see, Lya. He believes he will eventually be killed. Yet each time a danger threatens, he repels it. He doesn't repel all danger-he doesn't believe he could-but…"

"…but he does take issue with specific threats!" she finished for him, seeing it at last. She sat back in her chair, delighted with her revelation. "That's marvelous," she said, mostly to herself.

Holly sounded a little awed himself. "Oh, he's a marvel, all right. Imagine living like that! Here is a human being with absolutely no sense of optimism, no faith in his own future. No hope.

"Yet he manages to survive-not through an inherent craving for life-but through a stubborn refusal of death."

"No wonder he's splitting apart," breathed Lya and the two of them laughed.

I smiled.

After a few moments, Lya added: "But the ants will get him."

"Oh, hell," I snarled, angry at her. I held up my hands, indicating hordes in the unseen distance. "The ants will get him, sure. But," I stabbed the air before me, indicating an individual among the hosts, "not this one. And not the one behind him either, goddammit!" I looked at her beseechingly, willing her to understand. "Don't you see, Lya? The ants scare him. But he can fight the individuals because…"

"Because why. Jack?" she prompted.

"Because they piss him off!"

Holly had to perform a Fleet Citizenry Certification on a newborn baby girl so we got no chance to Immerse that day. It was our first break in weeks. Holly didn't like it any better than I did. At first.

"I don't know why I have to handle this personally," he said to Lya.

She explained to him, and me, that the father of the child, one Neil Phillips, was not part of Fleet at all. "He's an independent subcontractor, building some of the installations that aren't prefabs. Technically he's not under our direct authority. But he is a citizen, so he has a right to demand witnessing from the head of the nearest Fleet installation. That means you, Dear."

Holly nodded, looking at the request on the screen in front of him. "Wants to be certain his daughter can claim North American Humanity Privilege…"

Lya looked confused. "That's the part I don't understand," she said. "He says he wants to be sure she's a Texan."

I laughed. "Sugar, Texas is in North America."

"It is? I thought it was a planet!" She shook her head. "The way he talks about it…"

So we went. Reluctantly at first, and then with more enthusiasm. This Phillips dude understood how to throw a party. There were substances there even I, in all my years of debauchery, had never tried. I suspected that Phillips had made some of it himself, a charge to which he. never responded unless you count a devious grin, which I did not. Still, he was nice enough to take me aside and suggest, kindly respectfully, what I shouldn't try that night for the first time. I took him up on his advice.

Holly took him up on more than that. Seemed neither he nor Lya had ever seen anyone that chewed tobacco before. Lya was understandably appalled by the notion, but Holly was delighted and anxious to try it. He was particularly curious as to how Phillips managed the spitting and a clean beard at the same time. Phillips, complete with devious grin, was pleased to provide instruction.

Holly swallowed a lot of it. But Phillips was instantly at his side, commiserating and bearing some obscure green stuff to "get that taste out of your mouth. Director." By the time of the ceremony. Holly was just barely audible. But he managed well enough.

"…certify that Natalie Anne Phillips, daughter of Neil and Cindy Phillips, weighing five pounds and thirteen ounces on this fourteenth day of March, year 2081, Standard, is hereby and forevermore a full citizen of the North American Commonwealth. "

And once the ceremony was over, there didn't seem to any of the three of us any pressing reason to leave. At least half of the Project was there for the occasion of the birth of the first earthchild on Sanction, all happy and excited and full of homesickness and booze. It was a lot of fun.

I didn't see much of either Holly or Lya for several hours. I think Lya spent most of her time with the proud mother. And Holly spent at least an hour talking with Phillips' first child, handsome blond ten-year-old named Nathan. I just sort of mingled randomly, the feeling of frustration about not Immersing temporarily offset by the joy of the people around me.

Toward the end of the evening, I had a chance to stand outside the nursery viewer and actually see the little baby girl for the first time. She was beautiful, exquisitely formed, pixielike in her soft little fisty sleep.

I suppose I stood there too long, long enough to think about all such things that never seem to have anything to do with me. Things like children, of course. But especially Things, like the birth of beautiful baby girls. She had sandy hair, I remember. It looked very soft.

Talking about him that day had gotten to me. I resisted sleep. I don't know that I was really afraid of nightmares. I doubt it. Nothing was that clear to me on purpose.

Back to the curved railing of the dome's balcony, staring at the city. I lit a cigarette and somebody close by gasped. It was Lya, standing a few paces away in the shadows. I started to say something but I turned around instead at the sound of a foot scraping behind me. It was Holly.

He looked as surprised as Lya and I did. I wondered how long the three of us had been there without knowing about the others. I had often caught the other two like that, in the lab or the dining room. Sitting and staring. Usually I just moved on. But tonight, either because of the party earlier or because of the things that had been said-if they weren't really the same-I spoke up.

"Can I buy somebody a drink?" I asked.

My voice seemed to boom across the dome. We all jumped a little. But then we relaxed and Holly smiled and said he had had plenty to drink already and Lya laughed at that, volunteering that she might never drink again and we all laughed at that. Lya said she was hungry, however.

So the three of us headed down into the dome, weaving slightly, in search of food. The surly galley-tech was like every other cook since the dawn of dawning. It may have been Holly's Project, but the kitchen was his. With great reluctance and muttered hitching about the hour, he managed to lay out a cold snack for three. Then he stood around waiting for us to eat it.

"Out!" said Holly when he had had enough editorializing. He pointed his finger toward the door imperiously. It scared the hell out of the cook and made us all laugh at Holly's new Command Voice.

We laughed a lot. We needed it. We needed a drink too and something, syntho, was found. So we drank and picked at the food and became, inevitably, talkative. It was an eerie couple of hours in the half-light of that immense Galley. Not just because we talked, but because of what we talked about.

And something else: the way we talked.

We were fiercely cheerful.

And oddly enough, we didn't avoid talking about it. Rather macabre black humor as a matter of fact.

About how we had each of us been drinking a hell of a lot lately, not just tonight because even a hangover was better than some of the dreams we were having, ha ha ha. Maybe Lewis was right after all, ha ha. Probably have to stick to syntho ourselves once we got the habit. Ha.

Holly wondered aloud what it was that Lewis was scared to dream about and Lya said it was fish. I agreed. "He thinks they're plotting against him."

Holly laughed: "Paranoia is its own reward-who said that?"

I laughed: "Are there any fish in that river?"

Lya laughed: "Over sixty species catalogued so far. But that won't do Lewis any good."

Holly and I laughed: "Why not?"

And Lya laughed back: "Because most of the big ones are in on it."

And we laughed back at her and the three of us laughed at the three of us laughing.

Ha ha ha ha.

Later on a grain or two of truth from me. True Jack Crow. About how come I really didn't get the residuals from the Blaze-drive because I had discovered the Aiyeel in a stolen ship and how it came out at the piracy trial that Quan Tri couldn't really press charges against me for stealing the ship as he had stolen it from the Dalchek Mining Combine. And since Dalchek was already long-dead by that time without heirs or a will-Mid especially on account of the Blaze-drive being the single most valuable tool in history-Fleet had ended up with the whole thing. Or public Domain had, but at the time that was about the same thing.

They laughed at that story and at the part about me admitting being lost when I discovered the Aiyeel in the first place. It seemed to help.

So I told them the truth about how come the Darj regarded me as a God. Lost again and frantic again and then there I was with them spacesick and seasick and full of time lag and planet lag and throwing up the traditional feast prepared in my honor all over the Touch Mother who regarded, by doctrine- dogma, all aspects of regurgitation as holy. Meaning only sacred chow was good enough for me.

"I threw that up too," I added and they laughed. "But the Touch Mother didn't know because I was deep in the Inner Fold which was this very damp cellar, essentially, where gods hung out and I was alone and before anybody could find out, I was already on my way back."

Holly said he bet I was in an awful hurry to get out of there before they found out and I said yes, that too. "But mostly I was starving to death." Holly and I laughed at that and Lya, too, a little. But she was starting to drift.

Holly tried taking over, telling something I don't remember about being a young Prodigy. He tried to make it funny and, of course, failed. But I egged him on just the same, laughing hard and trying to get Lya to.

But she wouldn't or couldn't and eventually, inevitably, it got very quiet in that huge dark place. Holly couldn't stand it.

"You tell one. Honey," he said at last.

And she did. But she didn't just tell it. She carved it, carved it deep in the deepest place for it, our shame. It didn't start out as a story. It started out as a confession. As The Confession. The tears were already welling when she began to speak.

"I haven't been honest with you two," she said, starting the thick beads rolling. "I know I've been cold and distant and," bitterly, "oh so scientific! But the truth is. Holly, Jack… The truth is that I feel so… so small and mean and…"

She drifted off. Holly sat beside her like a statue. He could not move. And I knew what he felt, for I, too, wanted to shout: "DON'T! Don't crack us open!" But I didn't. I was a statue, too. And worse, I didn't even help.

She wiped her eyes and positioned herself more firmly on her stool. She stretched her hands out flat on the chopping board in front of her. She examined the knuckles. Then she curled her fingers securely together.

"It's like… it's like once on Trankia., when I was little and my brother had a dog. You know, a puppy." She looked at us to see if we knew. We nodded like the statues we were. "A puppy my uncle had brought him. From Earth, I think, or somewhere.

"Anyway, my brother, Gay, loved this dog. This puppy. He really did. I mean he did everything for him. Fed him and petted him all the time." She took a deep breath. "And all that. And I used to kid him about it. Not really much. Really! But some, I guess. Because he was younger than me and I was full of being the oldest and wise. You know, becoming awoman." She stopped, thought. "I think I was ten."

"Anyway, Gay was younger, like I said. And one day he had to go into town. Into the settlement. Cholesterol implants, maybe-he was about the right age. And Morn and Daddy were going to be away." She took another deep breath, a longer one this time. I begged her to stop. But she couldn't hear what I couldn't say.

"I was to look after the house. And after the dog. The puppy. Gay was so worried! He was sure I didn't like the puppy because I had kidded him so. And I laughed and acted really bored by his concern.'Of course I can take care of one measly animal,' I told him. And eventually he left, left the puppy with me. Only because Morn told him to stop being silly." She paused. "Just before she left she took me aside and told me to please be sure and I got mad that she had so little faith in me. But I didn't show it then. I waited until they were gone and then I let the puppy out by itself."

The tears were really rolling by then. She made a half- hearted attempt to wipe them away.

"The puppy never went out alone. Just never! We had sunk a geotherm close to the house but, I don't know, we'd struck the water table or something and anyway there was this deep, deep, well. About ten meters and it was jagged on the side without plastiform and some water at the bottom.

"I was at the kitchen window and I could see him bouncing around and I knew that anybody could watch him that way-Gay didn't have to be a baby about hovering over him all the time and, well, I looked up once…" She sighed like a death rattle. "And he was gone.

"I ran outside right then, of course. And I knew… instantly… I knew what I should have known all along. That I had known it was going to happen. I mean, I knew he was going to fall. I knew it. Why else had I let him out?" And she sobbed.

"He was still alive but his little haunches-his hips, you know-were broken. The fall had smashed them. And the water was too deep for him so he was paddling with just his two front little paws to keep up. To keep alive.

"He paddled all the way around in a little circle until he saw this little ledge kind of rock sticking out next to the wall and he paddled over, his little paws just churning, until he got there and then he just dug and clawed and scrambled up there, all the way on top of it where he could rest a little. And where I could see his little hips all crushed."

She shook her head to clear it, gritting her teeth. She began to talk more quickly, anxious to get it over with.

"But the rock he was on was too small, even for him and he was so… tiny! It was wet, too, from the water and… and from the blood and slippery. He fell back in, when he twisted around to try and lick away the pain.

"But instead of getting right back up there he seemed to be lost and he paddled around some more until I yelled down to him to get back on the rock and… when he heard my voice… he looked up at me, right into my eyes, and whimpered for help."

She stopped abruptly. She buried her face in her hands. When she looked back up, she was a ghost.

"He whimpered all the time from then on. Everytime he paddled he'd let out this pitiful little yelp. And everytime he got back up on the rock where he could catch his breath he would howl up to me to come get him and save him. There was no way to do that. Just no way. It was too deep and I didn't have a ladder or a rope and even if I'd had one, it was too far for me to climb. So all I could do was sit there and listen and watch him paddle and dig and scramble his way back up onto that rock and then, in just a second or two, slide back into the water. Pretty soon the water was red.

"And he was such a tiny puppy-he couldn't lose that much blood and live. But he did. He was like a… I don't know. Like a little motor. Paddling around and around like he could always do it."

She looked at us as if pleading. Back and forth into our dead frozen eyes. "But he couldn't. He couldn't. He wasn't a motor. He wasn't a machine. He was a puppy! I could hear how it hurt him. He was in agony!

"But he just kept on, paddling and climbing up and slipping back down into that red water and blood, sometimes his little head would just disappear for a few seconds. But he'd always come right back up again.

"At first I admired him so! Oh, I thought he was the bravest, most noble little thing I had ever seen, to keep at it like that. But… after a while. After the first hour… I mean, there was just no…

"I just hated him. I hated him. Because he wouldn't die. He was putting me through it, too. And I couldn't stand it! I couldn't stand it! I mean, there was just no way. And…"

Her voice cracked, broke. There was no way to stop it. But she told the rest of it through her aching.

"I went to the garden, the rock garden Morn was making and I got the biggest rocks I could carry and I took them back to the well and I sat there at the edge and I threw them at him until he was dead. I… I crushed his head with them."

She collapsed into fitful, racking sobs. Holly, tears plainly visible on his own cheeks, rushed to her and wrapped her in his arms. She clung to him, letting herself have it for some seconds. Then her head began shaking violently against his chest. "No!" she blurted and tore herself away. Holly tried to cradle her again but she propped her palms against his chest, holding him off and looking him in the eye so he would really know…

"No! No, Holly. No, my darling you don't understand! It's… it's… I hate Felix, too. Holly. I hate him the very same way I did that puppy and I hate us for watching and for not being able to stop watching and I hate him for making us see how brave he can be and… But mostly…"

She shrugged out of his grasp, stood up from the stool. Her voice was low and resigned and clotted with her shame. "Mostly I hate me. Holly. Because I would do it again. Yes, I would. I would. If I could do it again. I'd kill Felix now. I'd kill him. Anything to stop the awful whimpering. Anything!

"Don't you see, Holly? Don't you see? You can't love me! Look! Look how hateful I am!"

And then she fell against him, surrendering at last to his care. And his judgment. But there was no judgment there. For Holly felt the same way. He told her so as he held her. And as he told her he, too, began to cry and shake with the pain and shame and self-hate.

I tried to reach them. God, how I wanted to! But I couldn't. I couldn't move. I couldn't speak. I knew what to say. I knew what to do. I needed the release so badly, more than they did, more, worse, than they could ever know.

But I was blocked. Stuck tight to the rim of me, to the meat of my fear and loathing and hiding out behind and from the legend I had bled for so long. I remember trying to stand up…

❮❯